Mount Pulaski celebrates Lincoln’s birthday with a special presentation by Mary Lincoln

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[February 12, 2015]  LINCOLN - Saturday afternoon the Mount Pulaski Courthouse was the scene for a special birthday celebration in honor of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.

As is well known in the area, Lincoln practiced law in Logan County prior to his presidency. The Mount Pulaski Courthouse was one location that he frequented on his tour of duty in the Eighth Circuit. Today, the courthouse houses an upstairs courtroom that features its original flooring. Many has been the time that tour guides stunned visitors by telling them they were standing on the very floor where Lincoln stood in his days as a traveling lawyer.

Each year the courthouse acknowledges Lincoln, through a celebration that includes the famous Mary Todd Almond cake. This year in addition to the cake, Abraham’s favorite pie, green apple with rum sauce was also served.

In the downstairs area of the courthouse, a reception was held with the cake and pie being served along with punch and cookies. One room was set aside as a child art center. Kids were invited to come in and sit at one of the antique tables in the courthouse and create valentine artwork to take home with them.

The courthouse was manned by a group of volunteers, many of which greeted guests and served refreshments in 1800’s period costume.

At 1 p.m. a program was offered in the upstairs courtroom. The program began with Mount Pulaski Courthouse Foundation Chair Tom Martin offering an update and explanation for the need for this year’s Abe’s Million fundraisers. The Foundation will be conducting several fundraisers throughout the year with the intent of raising $1 million for the restoration and repair of the courthouse.

Abraham and Mary address the audience

Abraham Lincoln and wife Mary, portrayed by Gary and Carol Simpkins, opened the entertainment portion of the program to a packed house. Mary was the first to speak, sharing stories of her sons and their adventures in the White House. She noted they were rambunctious, mischievous children, who were prone to playing tricks on the house staff. One of their favorite tricks was when they rigged all the call bells in the house to ring at the same time. When they pulled the ropes, they took great pleasure in the staff running to and fro trying to determine where their services were required.

She shared a particularly funny story about her son Tadd. Mary Todd was born in Kentucky and had brothers who fought in the civil war. One brother had sent his nephew Tadd a confederate flag that the boy kept in his room at the White House. When the civil war was at its end, the President and Mrs. Lincoln hosted a celebration on the White House lawn. With a live band playing, Lincoln was asked what favorite song he would like to hear. He responded that he wanted them to play “Dixie” as it was a happy, catchy tune. When the music began, Tadd rushed to his room and grabbed a flag, and ran up and down the second-floor balcony waving it. Mary shared, it was the Confederate flag. She for this reason concluded, “So to celebrate the ending of the civil war between the states, Tadd was waving the Confederate flag while the band played Dixie.”

After Mary had finished, Abraham spoke briefly. In 1865, Lincoln celebrated his 56th birthday. It was the beginning of Lincoln’s second term as president. He said with the new term, he and a new vice-president, Democrat Andrew Johnson, was preparing for the restoration of the United States.

He noted that he authored the 13th Amendment and was proud of his home state of Illinois for being the first state to ratify that amendment.

He said, “The war continues because the Almighty has His own purposes which are different from men’s purposes. This was a truth which I thought needed to be told, because to deny it was denying there was a God in the world.”

He then read from his second inaugural speech. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Pam Brown presents “Taking Leave”

When Lincoln had finished speaking, Foundation member and courthouse volunteer Barbara Stroud-Borth introduced Pam Brown of Springfield, who was offering a portrayal of Mary Lincoln. Brown offered a special program, “Taking Leave” a 30-minute reenactment of Mary Lincoln’s departure from the White House after the death of her husband.

She took the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as a woman who had lost children and her husband and was now being removed from what had been her home for more than four years. She shared memories that brought her happiness and great sorrow, using props from a small box of mementos she had saved over the years.

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Her memories of her first and second courtship with Lincoln brought joy to her soul, which was quickly whisked away as she recalled the deaths of her children and the way they suffered.

She talked about the political letters she and Abraham had written under aliases during their courtship. She said that many believed they were secret yet public love letters, but that was not true. The letters were a joke between the two and a political poke at others. One reader, thinking Mary to be a man had challenged her to a duel over her positions in the letters. She said that Abraham had, in order to protect her, agreed to fight the angry reader.

Mary had criticized James Shields, who demanded a retraction. When no retraction came, he challenged the writer to a duel. She held up a lump of coal and explained its meaning. When the public heard of the challenge, one reader wrote, “Well then if they must fight, broomsticks, hot water, or a shovel of hot coals should suffice.”

She grieved over the things that were stolen from the White House after Lincoln’s assassination, and how that she was leaving with very little compared to what it should have been.

With the act being set in a private room of the White House, Mary would from time-to-time run to the door to shout back angrily at those who were pushing her to hurry up and get out.

In her box of memories, she found a copy of Lincoln’s favorite poem, ‘Mortality.’ In the words of the poem, she seemed to find prophesy as she recited,

“The infant a mother attended and loved,
The mother that infant's affection who proved,
The husband that mother and infant who blessed;
Each, all, are away to their dwelling of rest.”

In an outburst of rage and tears, she cried out at the sound of the summer bands playing outside her window. She cried, "I had forbidden that, the summer concerts. When people are in sorrow, why is this necessary? But they continue to play! I cannot keep out this music!”

She also shared the chilling story of a dream her husband had shortly before his death. In the dream, Lincoln was wakened from sleep by weeping. He went in search of the sound and found a corpse in a coffin downstairs. He asked the soldiers who had died in the White House, and they answered, “The president.”

Mary spoke of the shadows that entered her life. There were times when the world grew darker because of the tragedy that was about to befall her - the deaths of her sons; and the darkness she had ignored immediately before her husband was killed.

Brown completed her program recounting some of the events of the assassination night, including a happy carriage ride earlier in the day

She cried, “I should have noticed those shadows creeping across that spring meadow, but I could not take my eyes off the man to whom I said ‘I do’ on that cold winter night in Springfield.”

They had talked of the future and shared a time of intimacy, making them late for the show.

Her final comments, “There is a tale, and I’ve heard it to be true, of two pine trees that stood together, one towering far above the other. One evening a storm brewed and the taller of the two trees was struck by lightning. But both trees died because their roots were intertwined.”

Then, finally heeding the calls of the movers, she grabbed up her small box of memories and quickly left the White House for the final time.

The presentation finished with a quick question and answer session. In that session, Brown said that she had studied Mary Lincoln at length and had played her in the Mary Lincoln Insanity Trial plays put on in Chicago and Springfield. As a result, she was convinced that contrary to some popular beliefs, Mary Lincoln was not insane, though she may have been bi-polar with extreme highs and lows in her emotions.

She also shared that Mary Lincoln never referred to herself as “Mary Todd Lincoln”.

At the end of the session, guests were encouraged to go back downstairs and enjoy the favorite desserts of the Lincoln’s.

[Nila Smith]

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